New committee prepares to revive economy

The Maine State House is framed by spruce trees in Capitol Park, Friday, Dec. 10, 2010, in Augusta, Maine. Gov.-elect Paul LePage's transition team are working on a two-year state budget package. The Republican governor-elect promised a restructuring of state government during his campaign to eliminate waste and promote efficiency. (AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty)
Robert F. Bukaty | AP
The Maine State House is framed by spruce trees in Capitol Park, Friday, Dec. 10, 2010, in Augusta, Maine. Gov.-elect Paul LePage's transition team are working on a two-year state budget package. The Republican governor-elect promised a restructuring of state government during his campaign to eliminate waste and promote efficiency. (AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty)
Posted Dec. 31, 2010, at 11:24 p.m.

It’s still too early to tell exactly what bills and issues will come before the Legislature’s newly constituted Labor, Commerce, Research and Economic Development Committee, but leaders of the group suggest that their work could be a key part of getting the state’s economy moving.

Other legislative committees affect business in various ways, from taxation to marine regulations and from transportation infrastructure funding to energy policy. But the labor and commerce committee has both labor and the economy — and the spurring of it — as its main focus.

The new committee, formed by the merging of the former Business, Research and Economic Development Committee and the Labor Committee, is chaired by Sen. Christopher Rector, R-Thomaston, and Rep. Kerri Prescott, R-Topsham. Both served on the business and research committee over the last few years. While the combination of the two committees was initially contentious, leaders of both parties in the new group said they think its members should be able to work well with each other.

Neither Rector nor Prescott had any firm idea as to the bills that may come before the committee. But each laid out general goals for the group.

Rector said he planned to make sure the committee and the Legislature maintain a focus on supporting research and development.

“Maine is going to grow with small enterprises,” he said. “I don’t believe we’re going to attract a Mitsubishi or a GM to build a factory here and become a manufacturing hub. We’re going to grow the way we’ve done it before, with innovation and new technology that emerges around the existing areas of technology sectors that we’re competent in and known for.”

That includes composites manufacturing, biotech and advanced materials, Rector said, as well as the emerging offshore wind energy sector. At the same time, he said, the state needs to make sure that traditional industries such as fishing and lobstering, agriculture and forestry are supported as well.

Rector said he thought the R & D bonds passed by the Legislature and by Maine voters have helped strengthen the economy and that he would support more. The grants from the bonds have been strengthened, he said, in that they now require matching funds and are competitive in nature.

Quasi-governmental groups such as the Maine Technology Institute and the Maine International Trade Center fall under the purview of the committee, and Rector said he thought both have served the state well.

He anticipated working with Prescott to orient new committee members who may be less familiar with economic development efforts, he said.

“It’s our role to act as outreach agents for our colleagues in the Legislature and members of the administration, and for the public in general, in keeping the visibility of R & D in the forefront so they understand that’s where growth in the economy will occur,” said Rector.

Rector also added that the committee would listen to the business committee, perhaps more closely than it has in the past.

Prescott said that as a minority member on the committee for the past four years, she had seen some bills die there that she would have rather seen get a vote from the full House.

The committee had dealt with a number of licensing issues in past years, she said. Prescott said she planned to check up on past bills the committee passed and past programs that have been set up to see how they are doing. For example, she said she wants to check on how new statewide building codes are being implemented. She also wants to look at Pine Tree Zones — a state incentive plan — and see how effective they have been.

As bills come before the committee, she said, “I’m going to be looking at, ‘Is this going to grow the economy, is this going to grow jobs, is this going to create efficiencies in the government, is this going to make things better for the people of Maine?’”

She thought the committee likely would look at harmonizing the state’s definition of ‘independent contractor,’ which she said varies in different agencies and can cause problems for small-business owners.

She also floated the idea of a sales tax holiday, a concept that has been raised in the past but never approved.

“I believe that at some point, things have got to turn around, but there are decisions that can be made — common sense decisions that can help people get out of this faster,” Prescott said. “If we put our heads together, we can come up with some answers so the results can be seen immediately.”

Rector said a wild card would be how labor issues play into the committee. He said the Labor Committee worked in a bipartisan fashion in the last few sessions under Rep. John Tuttle, D-Sanford, and Sen. Troy Jackson, D-Allagash, and that he thought their work provided a good template for the new committee. Both Jackson and Tuttle are on the new committee; the Sanford lawmaker is the ranking Democrat.

Tuttle said the economy is still fragile, limiting the sorts of labor issues that may be approved in the new committee.

In the last session, Tuttle sponsored a bill that would index, or link, the minimum wage to the cost of living. He did not plan on offering such a bill again and was not sure if anyone else would, he said.

“It all depends on where the economy goes — people are lucky to have jobs now,” said Tuttle. “I think we have to place a premium on assuring that people have work.”

Tuttle said he planned to do his part to make the committee run effectively and noted that the Labor Committee passed more than 100 bills with unanimous support in recent years.

“I’m hoping we can continue that,” said Tuttle.

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